Hug a micro-bear

Water bears. Moss piglets. Those are just two examples of “cutesy” names for tardigrades (literally “slow stepper”; because they look like they do everything in slow motion), some of the most amazing animals in existence (IMO). These little animals, averaging 0.5 mm when fully grown, are almost cute with their short, plump little bodies, eight legs and looking a bit like a tiny Michelin guy.

Ugh, I’m so fabulous! (scanning electron microscope image of  SEM image of Hypsibius dujardini)

Water bears and water-dwelling tiny animals that mostly live in mosses and liches (top tip – get yourself a pet tardigrade by soaking some moss in water), but basically can be found anywhere (#GlobalCitizen).

And I mean everywhere. Some tardigrades live on the highest mountaintops. Others in the deepest trenches in the sea. They have been found in rainforests as well as in Antarctic regions. This is because tardigrades are so awesome. While they are not exactly extremophiles (organisms adapted to survive extreme conditions such as extreme temperature and pressure), they are able to survive extreme conditions for a certain length of time. Expose them for too long, and they will die, unfortunately. But expose them to extreme conditions, including very high or low temperatures, incredibly high or low pressure, air deprivation, dehydration or starvation for (depending on the system) a lot longer than what humans would survive, and they will bounce back! Some tardigrades have gone without water for more than 30 years, just to rehydrate and get back to living.

Happy Space Tardigrade
I mean, tardigrades can survive space! Tardigrades have been exposed to open space and solar radiation combined for 10 days and have lived to tell the tale. This makes them the first known animal to survive in space.
Just to give you a few more examples of the extreme conditions tardigrades have survived in:
    • Tardigrades have survived extreme temperatures, such as a few minutes at 420 K (151 °C) or 1 K (-272 °C) at the other extreme. Put one in -20 °C and it could survive for 30 years.
    • As well as surviving the extremely low pressure of a vacuum, they can withstand very high pressures such as 1200 times the atmospheric pressure (or even 6000 times for some species).
    • The longest that living tardigrades have been shown to survive in a dry state is nearly 10 years.
    • Tardigrades can survive 1000 times more radiation than other animals.R8CozXH
Basically, they could survive global extinctions. In fact, they are one of the few groups that have survived Earth’s five mass extinctions.
So after the end of the world, whether human-inflicted or natural, we can at least count on these amazing little creatures to survive the apocalypse. Maybe they will even evolve to giant, sentient, space-travelling (no spaceship required) giant water-bears.
Actually, giant water bears would be terrifying. Let’s not think about that.

Most (read: all) of this was found on wikipedia, the ultimate internet information hub that we all love to hate. I found the images at some point while browsing imgur, they’ve been on my phone waiting to be used for ages. I can’t find their original source.


Polymath (πολυμαθής)

Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era.

Usually, this feeling is music-related. Now that I have renewed access to my dad’s old record collection (and a record player, #Hipster), I can’t help but feel that rock music from the ’70s and ’80s surpasses anything being made now. Comparing music from the “olden days” to music now is of course not entirely fair; what still remains has already withstood the test of time, current music hasn’t had to (yet).

Music aside, my wrong-time-feeling also applies to how I feel about science and research. Nowadays, scientific discoveries seem to always be the result of hard work of an entire team of scientists for countless years. There is so much knowledge and information out there, it seems imperative to find one’s own little niche and specialise, specialise, specialise. It is impossible to be a master of all.

However, I long for the golden old days of the polymaths and the homines universalis when academics were interested in all fields. They were allowed, or even required, to branch out, study all sciences, not to mention humanities, linguistics and arts. I’m speaking of people like Galileo Galilei and Leonardo Da Vinci. My favourite person, D’Arcy Thompson, would also be considered a polymath.

A polymath is defined as someone with “knowledge of various matters, drawn from all kinds of studies ranging freely through all the fields of the disciplines, as far as the human mind, with unwearied industry, is able to pursue them” (1). I noticed while perusing the wikipedeia page, that the examples given of Renaissance Men are indeed all men. Even if I was born in the right era to be an homo universalis, I would still have been born the wrong gender.

However, there are at least a few examples of female polymaths, and I wanted to introduce you to one of them: Dorothy Wrinch. Just in case you wanted a more nuanced example.

Dorothy Maud Wrinch (12 September 1894 – 11 February 1976)

Dorothy Wrinch was a mathematician by training but also showed interest in physics, biochemistry and philosophy. She is someone who – even though I’ve only recently heard of her – is an excellent example of the homo universalis I wish I could be. She was also a friend of D’Arcy Thompson, though if I remember correctly, they mostly upheld a written correspondence.

In any case, Dorothy is known for her mathematical approaches to explaining biological structures, such as DNA and proteins. Most notably, she proposed a mathematical model for protein structure that – albeit later disproved – set the stage for biomathematical approaches to structural biology, and mathematical interpretations of X-ray crystallography.

She was a founding member of the Theoretical Biology Club, a group of scientists who believed that an interdisciplinary approach of philosophy, mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, could lead to the understanding and investigation of living organisms.

She is described as “a brilliant and controversial figure who played a part in the beginnings of much of present research in molecular biology.  (…) I like to think of her as she was when I first knew her, gay, enthusiastic and adventurous, courageous in face of much misfortune and very kind.” (2)

Actually, come to think of it, maybe Dorothy was born in the wrong era. Nowadays, using mathematical approaches to protein structure is practically commonplace. Though I’m not quite sure how well philosophy would fit in.

Anyway, I still feel that interdisciplinary research, and having broad interests, is not the easiest path to go down. But as long as we have inspirational people to look up to, past and present, we know it is worth a try.

(Wow, went way overboard with the #Inspirational stuff towards the end there.)

(1) As defined by Wower, from Wikipedia.

(2) Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (Wrinch’s obituary in 1976).

Not just your usual conference (100 years, Part VIII)

Spotted in the Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History (St. Andrews)

Last weekend, I attended the Centenary conference commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the publication of On Growth And Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. You might have heard me mention this book and its centenary at some point?

It was not just your usual conference. While most conferences centre around a certain field or topic, this one explored the influence of D’Arcy and his book on many different fields It was the most interesting mix of people and topics at any meeting I’ve been at, it succeeded in bringing scientists, mathematicians, computer scientists, historians, artists, architects, musicians and knitters in the same room.

Also, the sessions were not organised topically, but pretty much random, which meant that even if you were just interested in a few talks (on paper), you ended up hearing the wide variety of topics that have something to do with D’Arcy. Personally, I thought this was a very clever choice of the organisers (kudos to them), and I enjoyed hearing about art, architecture, history, and yes, knitting, instead of boring ol’ science for a change.


I also feel like I made some type of personal achievement. I was accepted to give a talk on the Physics of Cancer, which you might remember as the topic of my two FameLab contributions. For each of these, I had written a little song. So, in a crazy phase of over-confidence, I decided to incorporate these songs into my talk. And, why not, I also incorporated Star Wars references, weird cartoon cell drawings and pretty dodgy doodles I had drawn myself.

The response was amazing. I’ve given talks at conferences before but never have I received such positive feedback. Not only because they found the songs entertaining (I can assure you no-one fell asleep during my presentation) but I was also complimented on the clarity and accessibility of my talk (the very mixed audience, remember) and my optimistic approach to a “heavy” topic. If possible, I will from now on take this approach for every talk.


Finally, I have a new favourite D’Arcy quote (it’s quite convenient to have three days full of inspirational quotes to muse about):

“(…) things are interesting only in so far as they relate to themselves to other things; only then you can put two and two together and tell stories about them.”

Closely followed by this one, actually:

“Facts are pointless unless they illustrate greater principles.”

(The comics snippets and the second quote are from the graphic novel “Transformations“.)

Tweet tweet tweet

Last week, I suddenly found myself in a situation where I had 12k followers on twitter.

Before you think I had some sudden explosion of followers – okay, that would be awesome, but who are we kidding, I’m currently followed by 179 wonderful people* of which hopefully a minimal number is a bot, – I should be clearer. For a week, I was tweeting for the rocur** @iamscicomm.

Well, let’s just say I was slightly overwhelmed. Suddenly, I had a potential readership of really a lot. I actually made it to over 30 responses and likes on some of my tweets, and yes, I am totally bragging but I was quite proud of myself!

The week started with me photoshopping the scientiacristina (in charge of curating the twitter account) beaker into my profile picture.

I should probably point out that I have next to zero photoshop skills.

Then I had to come up with a plan… What should I tweet about? The goal of @iamscicomm is to talk about the interesting things involved in #scicomm and initiate discussions around communicating science. As in whatever I do (blogging, personal tweeting, etc), I just went for whatever I find interesting. My very elaborate plan (written on the back of a research paper I was reading on the train) was as following: scoping out my temporary audience (what are their reasons for being involved in #scicomm?), sneaking in some D’Arcy Thompson, talking about humour in #scicomm***, finding a niche/audience and how to combine it with a day job.

The most interesting discussions were on humour and the day-job-combo questions. I wanted to wrap up the week, exactly a week later, by briefly summarising my thoughts on these topics, that might or might not have changed after the public twitter discussion.

Topic #1 **** : humour in science communication 

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 10.34.19

Pretty much everybody went with “Yay,” with a few people who had some nuances.

So in my opinion (and somewhat backed up by the #scicomm community), the reasons to add some humour to science communication is that it helps grabs people’s attention, makes the scientist more relatable and more memorable, and it helps dispel the idea that “science is boring” (even though, let’s be honest, sometimes it is).

On the other hand, some people might be of opinion that science is a serious matter, and adding some humour might be a distraction. It can lead to misinformation if the message is oversimplified or changed too much. It can increase the problem of elitism if too many inside jokes are used. Finally, it can make the speaker seem unprofessional.

Anyway, the end conclusion seemed to be that you should not try to be funny just for the sake of being funny. Or to show off. If you would like to add some jokes, make sure they are appropriate for the situation and audience. And the speaker, for that matter. If you’re unfunny, better not start making jokes. It will not end well.


Topic #2: combining #scicomm with a research job, how do people do it and do they get acknowledged for it?

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 16.15.58

Basically, I was wondering about recognition of doing things like science communication and public engagement. It’s quite common for people, especially people early in their career, to do most of this in their “own” time, as an aside to their – already probably quite demanding – research job. Practically everybody I’ve asked about this in person has said the same: lab first, #scicomm on the side. There are many stories about people either dropping #scicomm because they had no time, or leaving research to focus on #scicomm permanently.

But, in my opinion, #scicomm is not some kind of weird hobby! It is an integral part of science and research. I don’t think everybody should be going out to schools or participating in demonstrations on open days, but I don’t think you should be punished for doing so either.

There are many reasons for doing #scicomm. For one, most researchers are publicly funded so it is only correct for them to communicate their research to those that are paying for it. Indeed, for some funding agencies, science communication and public engagement are becoming a requirement. It is also a way to ensure that people that have to make important policy decisions have the best information available. It could be because you want to inspire the next generation of scientists.

In my opinion, it can hardly be a bad thing. It raises the profile of everyone and everything involved: your university, your research topic, science in general, and yourself. So for the people that enjoy spending some of their time on communicating science and engaging people, I feel that it should be properly recognised.

There are some ways this is happening. Both my school as my university have a prize for public engagement *****, which acknowledges peoples efforts and comes with some prize money to fund future endeavours. But this is after the time has been put in. Can there be a way to recognise that it’s not time lost?

After bringing this up in the twittersphere, the solutions are simple: we either need longer days, a time turner, the ability to clone ourselves or to build robot helpers to do some of the work. All very realistic solutions, obviously.


So those were my conclusions after a – frankly quite crazy – week. I’d like to thank @iamscicomm for the amazing opportunity. Now, back to work!

Now, back to work!


* Oooh, it’s 186 now!

** Rotation Curation, also #RotationCuration or #rocur because hashtags are #thabomb, is the concept of rotating the spokesperson on a broad-scoped social media account.

*** Yes, I am #hashtagging every #scicomm mention. Deal with it.

**** Felt like fitting a more original (read: hipster) use of the hash in there…

***** which is how I got my name mentioned by Stephen Fry and this was such a life-determining event that I take absolutely every chance I can to bring it up again.

Octopuses suck! (but not like that)

You might know the frustration of trying to get a suction cup to stick: cleaning the sucker and surface over and over again, pushing on the sucker for increasing amounts of time and with increasing amounts of force… But nothing helps, the basket of shower gels and shampoos, or whatever you’re trying to attach to a wall/window/door (or maybe you are trying to climb a tower) just slowly slides down – if you’re lucky – or falls to the ground – on your toes, if you’re not so lucky.

Well, there might be some hope. Researchers are looking to nature to find a solution to this everyday frustration – because I’m positive this was the incentive: minimising shower rage. There is a whole field based on nature-inspired solutions and products, mostly grouped under the name Biomimetics, because why would you try to reinvent the wheel if nature has evolved a useful means of transportation?

Back to the suckers. In June, I came across a News&Views article that made me do a double take. You see, I had a brief moment of surprise when I thought the Nature journal had taken a liking to hentai (if you don’t know what this is, please do not google it). But it was not what I thought; “How to suck like an octopus” dealt on materials science, and how to make rubber sheets that can stick to surfaces. In other words: how to make better suckers!

It turns out that octopuses use suction cups to attach to rocks and to grab things. And it turns out the special shape of their suckers enhances that adhesion. Boom, let’s try and create a material that does the same!

Inspired by Octopus vulgaris, researchers tried to recreate the ideal adhesive material that sticks well to surfaces but also is able to detach easily. Octopus vulgaris‘ trick is a dome-shaped bulge at the bottom of the suction cup (see figure). This “dome in a cup” structure – mimicked by micrometre-sized hole with a dome in it (see figure, again) – enhances adhesion to wet surfaces by providing capillary forces between the dome and the substrate. On dry surfaces, the presence of the domes does not increase adhesion but doesn’t cause any decreased adhesion either. The only difference between the octopus suckers is that octopuses have muscles in the suckers to flex, expand and contract them, increasing control of the adhesion and detachment. There are still some things to mimic then; it’s always nice to have something for the “Future Work” bit of a paper.

I think biomimetics is like super cool, though I have to admit that sometimes the applications seem unrealistic or too far-fetched; in this case, the authors suggest applications in manufacturing – transport of materials – and biomedical applications such as wound dressing. However, I still believe there is great value in biomimetic research: better understanding – the biomimetic device can teach us of the workings of the in natura equivalent (I know that’s not what in natura means) – and it’s just fun to do!

The News&Views author agrees:

“Applications aside, understanding and mimicking the fundamental science of attachment strategies used by sea creatures can just be plain fun.”

Octupus vulgaris suckers contain dome-shaped bulges. Flexible biomimetic rubber sheets containing an array of micrometre-sized holes with a bulge in each hole.

Original Letter:
Suction Cup Guy:

Final thoughts (100 years, part VII)

To end my series of posts on the man and the book (D’Arcy Thomspon and On Growth and Form respectively, the latter a book with over 1000 pages), I wanted to share a few more quotes from and about him that I found interesting enough to type out:

“In his figure and bearded face there was majestic presence; in is hospitality there were openness, kindness and joviality; in his ever quick wit were the homely, the sophisticated and, at times, the salty… in status he became a very doyen among professors the world over; in his enquiring mind he was like those of whose toungue and temper he was a master, the Athenians of old, eager ‘to tell or hear some new thing'” – Professor Peacock (1)

  1. With the name Professor Peacock, I can’t help but imagine a flamboyant, multicolour-labcoat-wearing, frizzle-haired man…
  2. I hope the meaning of the word salty has changed over time…

There is a certain fascination in such ignorance; and we learn without discouragement that Science is “plutot destine a etudier qu’a connaitre, a chercher qu’a trouve la verite.” (2)
(Rather than destined to study for knowledge, (we are) searching to find the truth.)


In my opinion the teaching of mechanics will still have to begin with Newtonian force, just as optics begins in the sensation of colour and thermodynamics with the sensation of warmth, despite the fact that a more precise basis is substituted later on. (3)

As a self-proclaimed science communicator, it is often difficult to judge how much to simplify things. On the other hand, making things relatable to everyday experiences does not necessarily mean telling untruths. Classical physics may not be valid for every single situation, but it is often enough to describe what is happening without needing to resort to more complicated relative physics. And you don’t have to start quoting wavelengths when a colour description would do just as well. Fill in the details later, if necessary.

Some quotes on evolution and natural selection:

And we then, I think, draw near to the conclusion that what is true of these is universally true, and that the great function of natural selection is not to originate, but to remove. (4)

Unless indeed we use the term Natural Selection in a sense so wide as to deprive it of any purely biological significance; and so recognise as a sort of natural selection whatsoever nexus of causes suffices to differentiate between the likely and the unlikely, the scarce and the frequent, the easy and the hard: and leads accordingly, under the peculiar conditions, limitations and restraints which we call “ordinary circumstances,” one type of crystal, one form of cloud, one chemical compound, to be of frequent occurrence and another to be rare. (5)

We can move matter, that is all we can do to it. (6)

On a fundamental level, are we really able to build things? Aren’t we just rearranging the building blocks?

I know that in the study of material things, number, order and position are the threefold clue to exact knowledge; that these three, in mathematician’s hands, furnish the “first outlines for a sketch of the universe“, that by square and circle we are helped, like Emile Verhaeren’s carpenter, to conceive “Les lois indubitable et fecondes qui sont la regle et la clarte du monde.” (7)

(The unquestionable and fruitful laws that rule and clarify the world.)

For the harmony of the world is made manifest in Form and Number, and the heart and soul and all the poetry of Natural Philosophy are embodied in the concept of mathematical beauty. (8)

Delight in beauty is one of the pleasures of the imagination … (9)

#MathIsLife. Thank you, D’Arcy, for the 1000+ pages of mind-expanding, educational and philosophical topics.



(1) D’Arcy Thompson and his zoology museum in Dundee – booklet by Matthew Jarron and Cathy Caudwell, 2015 reprint

(2) On Growth and Form – p. 19

(3) Max Planck

(4) On Growth and Form – p. 269-270

(5) On Growth and Form – p. 849

(6) Oliver Lodge

(7) On Growth and Form – p. 1096

(8) On Growth and Form – p. 1096-1097

(9) On Growth and Form – p. 959

(2, 4-6, 8-9) from D’Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form,  Cambridge university press, 1992 (unaltered from 1942 edition)